I had made up my mind not to be astonished at that immensity of London of which I had heard so much. But it happened to me as to the poor school-boy, who had made up his mind not to feel the whipping he was to receive.In my exile, the city has acquired an almost mythical, Ulyssean resonance. In occasional moments, plucked as sweet drupes in the forest of labours, I dream of its grey stones, of its graves, of its fountains—of the Heath, and of the river. The waters of the Thames are greater than the waters of the Liffey—too sluggish—of the Seine—too narrow—of the Hudson—too. . . American. How many empty bottles it bears! How many sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends, and other summernight testimonies are concealed in its depths! (No more red sails, sad to say, no more drifting logs, and few beating oars upon its surface, so green with the endless stirring up of silt from its bed.) And all the bridges! My favourite is Albert Bridge, which opened in 1872. It resembles a pontiform wedding-cake. In fact, I asked a friend of mine to make an Albert Bridge-shaped cake for my own wedding; despite his best efforts, he couldn't make it work. Now, allegedly, its timber is being rotted by the urine of dogs marched across in their droves to Battersea Park.
— Heinrich Heine, 'London' (1828).
Most well-known and well-seen is Tower Bridge. But the bridge that defines London is, of course, London Bridge herself—my fair lady, though not quite so fair these days—whose dissimilar self sits ominously a few miles from here. She was the only bridge in London until 1750, when a second one was built just upstream at Westminster. As noted by Peter Jackson—no, not that one—'In a very real sense London exists because of London Bridge. . . Where the Bridge was built a settlement developed which was to become London.' Despite this, it isn't until the 16th century that we have any substantive mention of the bridge. At this time it was 905 feet long, and covered in houses—like the Ponte Vecchio today—thus the longest inhabited bridge ever built in Europe. In 1562, a visiting Italian merchant by the name of Alessandro Magno called the bridge 'a remarkable sight even among the beauties of London'. It looked like this:
This is a 1616 engraving by Claes Jansz Visscher. There are many pictures from the period, by John Norden, Van den Wyngaerde, Ralph Agas, Joris Hoefnagel and Claude de Jongh. Note the long boat-like objects at the base of each pier; these are called starlings. Patricia Pierce explains: 'Each pier was built on a platform which consisted of loose stone rubble enclosed in a ring of elm piles, across which were laid three oak beams. The whole was encircled by more piles for protection forming the 'starlings'.' Pierce also notes the presence of corn-grinding mills and waterwheels set up in 1581, and all the traitors' heads on poles (one traveller counted 34; Scaliger apparently noted whole corpses too). She tells us of a game:
'Shooting the bridge' was an irresistible challenge to the often fatally reckless, when at ebb tide the drop of the rapids could be as much as six feet. Occasionally, even the ceremonial water procession of an ambassador 'shott the bridge', presumably at 'still water'—even then a feat considered worth recording.With the flowering of English letters, Londoners began to take some real pride and interest in their city, and in their river. Ben Jonson wrote urban comedies, and Thames boatmen became poets. In 1598 John Stow provided the founding document of the capital's historiography with his Suruay of London, Contayning the originall, antiquity, increase, moderne estate, and description of that citie. It is a remarkable work, full of odd anecdotes and superstitions ground up with precise details of the city's history and topography. Here's what he says about the bridge:
The originall foundation of London bridge, by report of Bartholomew Linsled, alias Fowle, last Prior of S. Marie Oueries, Church in Southwarke was this: a Ferrie being kept in place where now the Bridge is builded, at length the Ferriman and his wife deceasing, left the same Ferrie to their onely daughter, a maiden named Marie, which with the goods left by her Parents, as also with the profites rising of the said Ferrie, builded a house of Sisters in place where now standeth the east part of S. Marie Oueries church aboue the Quier, where she was buried, vnto the which house she gaue the ouersight and profites of the Ferrie, but afterwardes the saide house of Sisters being conuerted into a colledge of Priestes, the Priestes builded the Bridge (of Tymber) as all other the greate bridges of this Land were, and from time to time kept the same in good reparation, till at length considering the greate charges of repayring the same there was by aide of the Citizens of London and others a bridge builded of stone as shal be shewed.Listen to the flow of that sentence—an Elizabethan sentence, casually long and riverine. Within 100 years this language would become obsolete; the torrent of words would dry up, like the Thames had done in 1114, and give way to the curt conversational style of the Royal Society. Browne and Urquhart would write the last monuments of the English baroque. Stow's sentence would be quoted (without citation) in 1657, just before the last embers of the style had died out, in James Howell's Londinopolis: an historicall discourse or perlustration of the city of London, the imperial chamber, and chief emporium of Great Britain:
At first there was but a Ferry kept in the place where now the Bridge is built, at length the Ferriman and his Wife deceasing, left the said Ferry to their only Daughter a Mayden, who with other goods, left her by her Parents, together with the profits arising from the said Ferry, did build a holy House for Nuns; in place whereof, the East part of St. Mary Overies stands now above the Quire, where she was buried: and unto that House of Nuns, she bequeathed the over-sight and benefit of the Ferry; But afterwards, that House of Nuns being converted into a House of Priests, the Priests did build a Bridge of Timber, and from time to time, kept the same in good reparation, till at length, considering the great charges which were bestowed in the frequent repair of the woodden Bridge, there was at last, by the Contributions of the Citizens, and others, a Bridge built of Stone.The changes are small but significant. The language has taken a step towards what we know now—Howell uses built instead of builded, stands instead of standeth, who instead of which, and specifies Nuns as opposed to the more poetic Sisters—his spelling, meanwhile, is moving swiftly towards a standard. But more important is Howell's repunctuation: he introduces a semicolon pause after 'Nuns', expanding 'where' to 'whereof', so as to accommodate the new period. Similarly, he gives 'buried: and unto that House of Nuns' instead of 'buried, vnto the which house'. What Howell does throughout the passage is break up the syntax, giving the reader space to breathe by making very small adjustments. Within another twenty years, even Howell's style would be considered cluttered.
Howell was an ardent Londoner, and his Londinopolis is full of praise for the bridge. He calls it 'the Bridge of the world', and the Thames' 'greatest Bridge, which, if the stupendious Site, and structure thereof be well considered, may be said to be one of the Wonders of the World: though, as some think, it hath too many Arches; so that it may be said, If London Bridge had fewer eyes, it would see far better.' Howell provides this poem as a preface for his book:
When Neptune from his billows London spyde,Just to show off, he gives the same poem in Latin as well. The classical allusions and iambic pentameter in heroic couplets are standard for a dedicatory poem. To this we contrast something much more odd, and more interesting, with its own mythology:
Brought proudly thither by a high Spring-Tyde;
As through a floating Wood He steer'd along,
And dancing Castles cluster'd in a throng;
When he beheld a mighty Bridg give law
Unto his Surges, and their fury awe;
When such a shelf of Cataracts did roar,
As if the Thames with Nile had changed her shoar
When he such massy Walls, such Towrs did eye,
Such Posts, such Irons upon his back to lye,
When such vast Arches he observ'd, that might
Nineteen Rialtos make for depth and height,
When the Cerulean God these things survayd,
He shook his Trident, and astonish'd said,
Let the whol Earth now all Her wonders count
This Bridg of Wonders is the Paramount.
Then Westminster the next great Tames doth entertaine;This passage appears towards the end of Michael Drayton's epic Poly-Olbion, eighteen books of rhymed couplets on the landscape of England and Wales, composed between 1598 and 1622. The poem was not a great success; the poet lamented that his Elizabethan epic was unsuited to the conservative Jacobean tastes that it met on publication. But it is a magnificent stretch of verse, available now as part of an Elibron facsimile reprint of Drayton's collected works. Each book covers a different county, describing its topography and folklore, with particular attention to rivers.
That vaunts her Palace large, and her most sumptuous Fane:
The Lands tribunall seate that challengeth for hers,
The crowning of our Kings, their famous sepulchers.
Then goes he on along by that more beautious Strand,
Expressing both the wealth and bravery of the Land.
(So many sumptuous Bowres, within so little space,
The All-beholding Sun scarse sees in all his race.)
And on by London leads, which like a Crescent lies,
Whose windowes seem to mock the Star-befreckled skies;
Besides her rising Spyres, so thick themselves that show,
As doe the bristling reeds, within his Banks that growe.
There sees his crouded Wharfes, and people-pestred shores,
His Bosome over-spread, with shoales of labouring ores:
With that most costly Bridge, that doth him most renowne,
By which he cleerely puts all other Rivers downe.
In Book 15 we hear of the royal wedding of the Tame and his bride the Isis, and of their child the Tamesis (Thames), the 'King of all our Rivers'. Drayton's elaborate presentation can be contrasted, again, with Howell's prosaic account: 'From hence she goeth to Dorchester and so into Tame, where contracting friendship with a River of the like name, she loseth the name of Isis or Ouse. . . and from thence she assumes the name of Thamesis all along as she glides'. Drayton's verses, like the river itself, are heavy and slow, in watery melisma, onrushing relentlessly, its only breaks the books themselves, making time of space, making song of land and water, ancient as days. The Thames flows east, accepting the pleasures of the Colne (16.1-4):
The Brydall of our Tame and Princely Isis past:Finally it flows through Surrey, Hampton, Westminster and London in Book 17, quoted above (89-104), where the King of Rivers 'summarily sings the Kings of England, from Norman William to yesterdaies age'. London is painted briefly, as space allows, sketched with its crowds and wharfs—warehouses at the river-front, according to the folk derivation—with its spires and its ores/oars, and most of all with that most costly Bridge, that doth the river most renowne, / By which he cleerely puts all other Rivers downe.
And Tamesis their sonne, begot, and wexing fast,
Inviteth Crystall Colne his wealth on him to lay,
Whose beauties had intic't his Soveraine Tames to stay.
The history of a bridge could be a history of disaster and renewal—of cadences, falling and rising, the edifice of a line as transport from bank to bank, from period to period. Stow tells us that the timber burnt down in 1136, was rebuilt, still timber, in 1163, and rebuilt again, now in stone, 1176-1209. But the tribulations of the bridge were far from over—'Aboute the yeare 1282. through a greate frost and deepe snow, 5. Arches of London bridge, were borne downe and carried away. In the yeare 1289. the bridge was so sore decayed, for want of reparations, that men were afraid to passe thereon'. No wonder the popular rhyme we know so well,
London Bridge is falling down,But London Bridge—wood and clay, silver and gold, needles and pins, stone so strong—would prevail against all the elements and the vicissitudes of man. Drayton was not so lucky; nor was that Elizabethan river of language, green with the stirring of Saxon soil, for which he stood. In this light the writings of Richard F. Jones and Morris Croll, charting the purge of English prose during the Reformation, sound like laments, little unheard tragedies of the history of our language, a long undone bridge.
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.